An Anxiety Story

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Anxiety - A grayscale picture of a hand eraching out of water towards a cloudy sky
Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

Something that struck me when I was being tested how common anxiety is with ADHD. For me, that manifested in tests. I want to change answers because I’m so afraid of being wrong. I’ve gotten better, but it has continued into my post-undergrad life. If I make a mistake, it’s hard to resist the urge to beat myself up. Over the years I’ve developed tools to manage anxiety, but it still plays a role in my life.

Anxiety is a fear response. Fear isn’t bad. It keeps us safe. Standing over an active volcano, for instance, you realize that laying down and making lava-angels would be bad. The fear of being burned alive would hopefully prevent you from doing that.

Anxiety comes in during prolonged threatening or stressful situations. For me, that started in elementary school. Because my processing speed is slow, I had a hard time finishing tests. I had a few teachers focus exclusively on my low scores. I felt stupid, and some teachers reinforced that.

As an adult, if I make a small mistake socially or in work, I’ll obsess over it for days. It’s hard to get past that until I apologize, sometimes to excess.

What can we do to help minimize this? Individually, that can mean medication or therapy. Maybe both. On a supportive level, understanding is key.

Kids need patience and compassion, but so do adults. Nontraditional students return to school to better their lives. One of the most toxic aspects of our society is how it views landmarks as being strictly chronological. Anything less than early success is still seen as failure.

Mistakes are an opportunity for growth, and that’s worth keeping in mind as we interact. If we tackle anxiety on a socially, perhaps it won’t be as prevalent or difficult individually.

Invisible Strength

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Yellow and purple flowers growing out of rocks

            I’ll admit it. I have a hard time with motivation sometimes. It’s just a part of being human, and it’s often compounded by that nasty little critical voice living in our heads. One of the big issues with my voice is the way my neurodivergence has reinforced what it says.

            Part of that has to do with anxiety, which I’ve lived with for as long as I can remember. I had written an article about my coping mechanisms here, but as I was stumbling through last week, I got to thinking about invisible strength.

            Invisible strength is the overlooked power to get through those mental blocks. Getting up and going can take huge effort, but it’s not obvious by looking at us. My lens is through that of invisible disability. People don’t see the years of mental training needed to get to my current functional level. They don’t see the ongoing fight to maintain health and an environment I can efficiently work in.

            It’s hard, but that’s life.

            You don’t have to fit into any specific demographic to struggle. We all have our own fights, regardless of how good our lives may look. That’s something we need to learn how to honor. At the same time, we also need to at least notice the struggles of other and remain compassionate about whatever they’re going through. Your difficulty is never an excuse to abuse others.

            We’re all strong in our own ways. Our brains may be hardwired to notice the negatives, but that’s all the more reason to make the effort to see the positive and to build upon that. That starts with seeing our invisible strengths. It continues with building upon them.

On Disability Erasure

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A pad of paper with the last few letters of "Disability" erased. A yellow mechanical pencil lies on the paper.

            Disability is a dirty word. It shouldn’t be, especially considering as of 2012, the US Census estimated there were around 56.7 million folks living with disability. As the population increases and ages, that number has no doubt gone up. The fact people are reluctant to use the word is the root to erasure of this diverse group.

            I’ve carried it for as long as I can remember in the form of dyslexia. As I learned how to leverage my unique neurology, I also had a hard time identifying as disabled. The mainstream picture of disability is that of visible helplessness. That picture erased a huge part of my identity. My body has always been healthy, barring minor chronic issues. The only time I struggled with mobility was when I repeatedly sprained the same ankle one year.

            So, why does it matter?

            On a practical level, it matters because we need accommodations to function in the world. Take dyslexia for example. Dyslexic children face extra barriers to their education. Some school districts refuse to use the word “dyslexia”. Many schools resist testing students or providing IEPs (Individualized Education Plans).

However, dyslexia is often not identified until adulthood. Testing for learning disabilities is expensive and time consuming. Because these disabilities aren’t classified as medical, health insurance won’t cover testing. When someone is already struggling with money, diagnosis becomes another barrier to a better life. When I returned to college, I needed to be reassessed. My doctor gave me a discount, but I still spent over a year paying down the debt.

            Regardless of age, gender, sexuality, race, income-level, or any other demographic, disability is a part of the story. Disability must be honored. Our struggle is worth talking about and our achievements are worth celebrating. We are here, and we are here to stay.

Disability is Diversity: Our Place in the World

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When I was younger, I struggled hard with the concept of labeling. I was labeled as dyslexic in kindergarten at a time when most dyslexic kids went undiagnosed for at least three to four more years. It gave me a leg up on learning my letters, though my numbers were another story. I floundered in math, but I flourished in English comprehension. Even in my dyslexia, I have always been backwards.

For a long time, I hated the label of “disabled” or “special education” because it opened both my brother and I up to cruelty. We were set aside and mistreated by our peers and sometimes our teachers. For me, it became something to hide. Something to be ashamed of.

Now I know “disability” isn’t a dirty word. The way the American culture is structured does disable people who don’t fit in the spectrum of “normal”. Life thrives on diversity and that is what disability is. We who experience the world differently think differently. We come up with solutions and art unique to what the temporarily abled can.

When I first learned about my ADHD, I got curious about why I function the way I do. Sure, there are brain-based theories and biochemical theories, but I was interested in evolution.Why would rapid changes in attention and high distractibility exist if it didn’t somehow benefit the species?

After poking around a bit, I found articles like this one on the Healthline website. ADHD helped our ancestors better gather food and protect their families. The constant switching between stimuli helped them find more  types of food than those without ADHD. On top of that, they could pick up threat presence more easily, which offered a better chance of survival.

However, those talents don’t fit in very well with modern classrooms or jobsites. That’s probably why I gravitated towards writing rather than something with a strict structure. As a writer, I have the freedom to follow diverging lines of research. My tendency to hop between threads creates unique material.

My first drafts are never great, but there are always pearls worth keeping. Editing is where that structure comes in. It’s also where I can pick out the pearls that don’t fit and save them for later.

As a tutor, I’ve found both my dyslexia and ADHD have given me advantages. Often, I’m the only tutor on duty, and when I have multiple students simultaneously, I must switch between them. Our particular lab works on a walk-in basis, so there are no appointments.

For instance, I have helped one student with anatomy homework, another with a paper about diabetes, and a third with a paper about racial issues at the same time. I did that by giving them each turns, evaluating what they needed, offering them advice or giving them tasks, and then moving to the next once I was sure they understood what was needed. I do prefer doing that sort of work one-on-one, but multitasking is sometimes necessary.

Dyslexia has helped because I have worked with other dyslexics and those with other disabilities. It helps when the people helping you have a personal understanding of your challenges. Interestingly enough, the fact I had to incorporate a unique understanding of English has helped me work with adult English learners.

Many ESL (English as a Secondary Language) courses rely on memorization. That may be great for some people, but it’s not for many people. Part of how I used my dyslexia to understand writing is by learning about why words behave the way they do and why the spelling is often so wonky. That acknowledgement helps students who struggle with self-esteem, while sharing tips gives them hope while providing tools to better language skills.

Obviously, I have close personal relationships with dyslexia and ADHD. They’re part of who I am. I don’t see them as separate entities, but I understand why some people do. I’ve put a lot of thought into how they complement who I am as a person, but it also makes me think about different forms of neurodivergence and disability.

While no disability experience is universal, many are similar. We who live differently must develop different modes of thought. Who’s to say we can’t create amazing things within the world we live?